With the 2020 Formula 1 season due to get underway later this week, Last Lap looks at some of the talking points of the upcoming year.
Who do you think will be the best bet for the title? Do you see anyone challenging Mercedes this season?
Rob Hansford: Off the back of pre-season testing, Mercedes look the clear favourites going to Melbourne, but I don’t expect it to be clear cut, especially as Mercedes seemed to have some engine reliability issues in Barcelona.
Red Bull looked mighty at times in testing, and if they can build upon their strong performances from the end of 2019, I could definitely see Verstappen being a thorn in Hamilton’s side, and I would love to see a real title fight between F1’s leading man and the champion in waiting.
Freddie Coates: Last year we all said Ferrari were the shoe-ins for the title after Barcelona and Mercedes got five 1-2 finishes and eight wins in a row whilst the Scuderia failed to win a race until September. Mercedes don’t normally smash in the glory runs in testing, in 2016 they conducted nearly the entire pre season on the Medium tyre. All that being said it’s an ominous sign that Valtteri Bottas’ time from week one stood at the top all across test two. Mercedes’ innovation has been the main talking point of the test with the highly debated DAS system causing a serious stir. I don’t want to come across as a cynic but if they were so happy to discuss it, I reckon they’re quietly confident about a lot of the other bits on the car this year and will be very tough to beat, even if Ferrari’s race runs look similar.
Mohammed Rehman: From what we can take from pre-season testing, Mercedes seems strong and assertive to foreshadow another dominant season through showing-off technical innovations like the DAS. I can picture them claiming a seventh consecutive constructors’ title and Hamilton, in commanding form, will be achieving a seventh title to match Michael Schumacher’s all-time record. In order for Ferrari to strike, they will drastically need to address the team-mate rivalry that sparked quickly throughout the 2019 season and ended up costing their chances at consistent top results. I imagine that Leclerc will be looking for consistency as Vettel looks to improve, otherwise the Ferrari squad face no real chance of challenging against Mercedes.
Whilst Red Bull may not be strictly capable of challenging for the title this year, I think that Max Verstappen is the ideal leading driver that they need after his most successful season in 2019. And perhaps the aggressive style and brisk attitude of Max could see him battling against Hamilton for wins throughout the season.
It was hard to judge the pecking order of the midfield teams in pre-season testing. Who are you predicting to shine and do you think there could be any dark horses?
RH: With the regulations for 2020 remaining stable, the midfield is going to be packed tighter than ever before and teams like Renault, who need fourth in the constructor’s in order to show their board that they should remain in the series, are going to have a tough time.
At the moment, Racing Point appears to be the team to watch after an impressive pre-season testing. They may have taken a lot of influence from Mercedes, but there’s nothing wrong with that, and I wouldn’t bet against them getting a podium at some point. You would also expect McLaren to build upon their decent 2019 performance, but I wouldn’t rule Haas out of a surprise return to form. They clocked some decent mileage, in the second test especially, and they have shown before that they are capable of building a decent car, so it is entirely possible that they could be squabbling with Racing Point and McLaren for regular point paying positions.
FC: Racing Point has been the obvious stand out in the midfield and at the end of test one were being hailed to challenge Ferrari seriously. Whilst Ferrari managed to show a bit more of their hand in the second test to avoid slipping back into the midfield, Racing Point continued to look very good at the front of the challenging pack. McLaren can’t be counted out this early though based on their pre season last year they were not anything to shout home about but they managed to sweep the floor for fourth place as the season went on. A fight between them and Racing Point looks set to become very intense. Renault don’t appear to have made the car gains that are expected of a manufacturer and to be leapfrogged by Racing Point like they were by their customer team McLaren last season could spell a difficult season for them. I expect AlphaTauri to be at their heels.
MR: After their most successful season since 2013, I think that McLaren will once again assert their position as ‘best of the rest’. Having claimed a podium finish at Brazil last year, it’s clear that their pace and reliability has dramatically improved from the downfall that was of previous years. Under the Toro Rosso name, AlphaTauri also just had their most competent season after achieving two podiums. It’s clear that Gasly has found his zone at the team, having performed well when in the Toro Rosso, and not so much following his uncomfortable time at Red Bull. The team appeared to show composure at the pre-season test, but they will still find themselves locking horns with Renault and Alfa Romeo in their desire to finish in the top ten.
Of course, there’s also Haas who faced their worst season last year and will look to find the speed that they had in back in 2018. Even so, the team-mate clashes presented as a major conflict in the team last year and quickly led to an endless sequence of retirements and misfortunes. I don’t see any of them challenging the other midfield teams until Guenther Steiner is able to reign in Grosjean and Magnussen, which is unlikely to take shape this year. The real test here will be how the pair manage later into the season.
Williams endured a much better pre-season test this year compared to 2019. Do you think they will be any closer to the midfield this year?
RH: Williams look to have a much better car than last year’s challenger, and although the Grove-based staff have stated that they still expect to be at the back of the pack in Melbourne, I think they will definitely be closer. I don’t think there will be any miracles and it would be a tall ask for them to make regular Q2 appearances, but if they are able to mix it up with at least a couple of teams in the midfield, I think we will really see the abilities and potential of George Russell shine through, as he is a star in the making!
FC: Undoubtedly better than last year! They actually made it on time and even got in a filming day to top it off. The team had a similar air to McLaren last season; the feeling that a weight has been lifted off of their backs following a hard season. I’m not predicting them to leap to being the fourth best car but there is definitely confidence in the team rather than a constant embarrassment about their performance. I don’t think they will be challenging for the points early in the season but I reckon this will be their best season since 2017.
MR: For the majority of 2019, they were insisting that their focus was on next year’s car and it would be quite an anti-climax to see them yet again unable to escape the bottom of the grid. However, the fact that they were actually able to take part on the first day were signs that things are already looking good for the team. I can picture them standing more of a chance with a package that certainly looked more composed and competent, as opposed to last year’s pre-season testing. Whilst I don’t see them escaping Q1 often, I do sense steady and positive progress that will be the focal aim for this year before targeting any major points finishes. George Russell has been able to somewhat showcase his raw talent (at least at race starts), so a more competent car may allow us to see more of what he’s capable of.
Seven teams look set to battle the FIA over their decision to come to a private settlement with Ferrari over their 2019 engine. How do you think that is going to play out during the year?
RH: Well the battle lines have been drawn and it’s going to be interesting isn’t it? I can understand why the teams were up in arms about the first FIA statement, and there is no way the FIA could have believed it would end there.
The FIA has said that whilst they had concerns that Ferrari weren’t in line with the regulations, the matter was too complex and they couldn’t definitively prove it. To me, that doesn’t help matters as the governing body should be able to get to the bottom of any issue, and I suspect the teams will argue that the investigation should not have been concluded until the matter was fully resolved one way or the other. I think a legal battle will definitely ensue at some stage, as there could be a lot of money at stake, especially for Red Bull, and time will only tell how damaging it is for the FIA, F1 and the teams involved.
FC: There will be particular focus on the 2020 Ferrari power units speed at power dependent tracks such as Bahrain and presumably Vietnam, tracks their 2019 car would have been suited to. Even though there will be more inherent focus on downforce for this season’s car anyway after poor showings at aero dependent tracks last season, if there is a marked difference in their competitiveness that would only fuel arguments about their illegality last year and questions about what they are no longer allowed to do. No doubt this will run on and on if this kind of situation occurs and understandably so. It could have decided the 2018 championship and prize money will likely become a very public complaint from Red Bull. It will be the story of Australia at least. That is a definite.
MR: Of course it wasn’t what the FIA were hoping for as we near Melbourne and I’d imagine it would be first addressed at the pre-race press conference. However, I am sure that the teams will continue to assert their argument against the FIA throughout the year until they do receive a clear, valid and credible response to their concerns. A questionable first response from the FIA predictably fuels this fight.
This is key on a matter when we look ahead at the calendar at tracks like Vietnam and Montreal, where acquiring a swift powertrain will no doubt make the difference to Ferrari’s lap times. Even so, the teams will eventually pursue a legal battle to the furthest point and question the legality of Ferrari’s powertrains. Ferrari can only continue to work on the aerodynamic downforce of their cars that they hinted would be a focus from last year. An onboard from Vettel at last year’s Canadian Grand Prix clearly illustrated the struggle that was the aero package but the ease that was straight-line speed.
As the evolving drama unfolds, it will certainly be on the minds of everybody as we progress through the 2020 season.